Half a King by Joe Abercrombie – Book Review

Book Review

Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

originalThe work of Joe Abercrombie holds a special place in my reading heart. The Blade Itself was the first book I ever picked up “blind” from the bookstore. I was new-ish to the fantasy book landscape, I had recently devoured a trilogy recommended by a friend and I was eager for new blood. I’ve been a huge Abercrombie fan ever since and have devoured each of his new adventures in the First Law setting. But you won’t find any bald magi or meddling banks here, no Eaters, no drunk, swash-buckling mercenaries. After a trilogy and three stand-alone titles Abercrombie is taking us to a new world in in a new market.

Prince Yarvi is the youngest son of the King of Gettland. Born with a disfigured hand he is seen as worthless by his father and instead has chosen to lead the life of a minister, a warrior of the mind rather than muscle. But the murder of his older brother and father puts Yarvi in the last place he thinks he should be (the throne). He eventually comes into his own group of strangers and with their help discovers his true place in life on the Shattered Sea.

Admittedly, the plots of Abercrombie’s books are typical fantasy blended with other genres (quest, western, revenge, soldier at war, for example). Half a King isn’t anything drastically new. It’s a bildungsroman/coming-of-age tale where a young protagonist rises into a role that was far beyond his reach when the book starts.

Even the setting is pretty standard Viking-fare and is exactly what you might picture. Although special mention goes to the history and religion, which are more interesting than any storm-tossed sea or Viking longboat. There is a welcome break as our prince reaches the desolate, arctic north and was forced to trudge in hip-deep snow. It’s just unfortunate that it came so late in the book.

But there is something more important than plot or setting.

Abercrombie shines in his portrayal of real, honest characters. Prince Yarvi will rightfully be taking his place amongst the expertly crafted characters of his First Law books. From the onset you feel for this young boy with a crippled hand, as he is unable to live up to the warrior-dominant culture. Each step is filled with mounting hardships as he goes on a personal journey and I couldn’t help but root for him at each turn and feel the pain of his burden along the way.

But that isn’t what Joe Abercrombie is known for, although it should be. Instead, he’s widely regarded as being a writer of “grimdark.” That is, he’s unafraid to showcase a world of “grittiness” and “realism.” Violence and sex are as common as normal dialogue in these novels (George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is another example) and Abercrombie never shied away from showcasing the seedier side of his world.

Thankfully he tones it down for Half a King, a novel geared toward the Young Adult market. It’s still a brutal world and there is plenty of action to go around, it’s just not as blatant or gruesome. This played closer to my own tastes as I can only take so much doom and gloom in my entertainment before it gets ridiculous.

Half a King captures our attention with Prince Yarvi from the onset. But it is a good quarter of the book before the plot kicks into gear enough to really grab interest. Once it does, it sinks those teeth in and refuses to let go until you finish the book. It’s a breath of fresh air from an author who made his mark in a single world and I’m looking forward to venturing back onto the Shattered Sea with the next installment.

Book Synopsis:

“I swore an oath to avenge the death of my father. I may be half a man, but I swore a whole oath.” 
 
Prince Yarvi has vowed to regain a throne he never wanted. But first he must survive cruelty, chains, and the bitter waters of the Shattered Sea. And he must do it all with only one good hand.

The deceived will become the deceiver.
 
Born a weakling in the eyes of his father, Yarvi is alone in a world where a strong arm and a cold heart rule. He cannot grip a shield or swing an axe, so he must sharpen his mind to a deadly edge.

The betrayed will become the betrayer.
 
Gathering a strange fellowship of the outcast and the lost, he finds they can do more to help him become the man he needs to be than any court of nobles could.

Will the usurped become the usurper?
 
But even with loyal friends at his side, Yarvi finds his path may end as it began—in twists, and traps, and tragedy.

Red Country by Joe Abercrombie – Review

Red Country by Joe Abercrombie

They burned her home.
They stole her brother and sister.
But vengeance is following.

Shy South hoped to bury her bloody past and ride away smiling, but she’ll have to sharpen up some bad old ways to get her family back, and she’s not a woman to flinch from what needs doing. She sets off in pursuit with only a pair of oxen and her cowardly old step father Lamb for company. But it turns out Lamb’s buried a bloody past of his own. And out in the lawless Far Country the past never stays buried.

Their journey will take them across the barren plains to a frontier town gripped by gold fever, through feud, duel and massacre, high into the unmapped mountains to a reckoning with the Ghosts. Even worse, it will force them into alliance with Nicomo Cosca, infamous soldier of fortune, and his feckless lawyer Temple, two men no one should ever have to trust . . .

Joe Abercrombie’s latest book in the First Law world brings us back in touch with one of the most beloved characters in the series, Logen Ninefingers, or as he’s more colorfully known, The Bloody Nine. Abercrombie has followed his pattern and written another genre mashup. Best Served Cold took us on the revenge filled motives of Murcatto while The Heroes was a wonderfully written military fiction detailing a three day battle during a particular bloody war. Red Country on the other hand brings us Abercrombie’s take on the western, and he doesn’t disappoint on the familiar tropes. Whether it’s the citizens on the move during a gold rush, the Native American analogues found in the Ghosts, high speed wagon chases, or a duel that’s oddly reminiscent of a shootout at high noon, Abercrombie doesn’t disappoint with his latest journey into the world of the First Law.

Red Country is perhaps my new favorite of Joe Abercrombie’s offerings, it finally seems as though he’s found the perfect balance in his writing. With witty dialogue, multiple viewpoints, realistic battles and wounds, and of course memorable characters. Joe Abercrombie is known to many as one of the great fathers of dark(gritty) fantasy. That is realistic writing that doesn’t fluff up the cold harsh reality of men and women fighting, falling in love, and altogether surviving. While some of his earlier books bordered too extreme for me, Red Country had the perfect blend of make me keep turning pages instead of setting it aside to process what happened.

Joe Abercrombie does a fantastic job with his characters, and to this day Glokta remains in my top 3 all-time favorite characters I’ve read, and Red Country is no different. Shy South is the definitive tomboy, not bothering with the typical frills and lace of female P.O.V’s and instead opting to haggle, drive cattle, and fight with the men in the Far Country. Temple is a man who has had more jobs than he can remember, the latest being a lawyer for the infamous soldier of fortune Nicomo Cosca, and is famously known for taking the easy way, regardless if it’s the right way. While Lamb is a cowardly old man with more scars on his body than any one person has a right. It’s Lamb who proves to be one of the most engaging as we never get a viewpoint from this complex character with a deeper past than most realize. Fans of the series will delight to have such a deep character in their midst while newcomers to the series will get a glimpse into one of the most famous men in the North.

We do get a small glimpse into the lives of the mountain-men in the climax of the book, however it raised more questions than answered and I look forward to/hope we will be seeing more of these Dragon-People in further works. I always loved the idea of Euz and his sons Juvens, Kanedias, Bedesh, and Glustrod, and yearn for more information.

That being said, I had one major complaint concerning this book, and it’s more of a personal reason than anything else. I want more information on the plans of the First of the Magi Bayaz and the Prophet Khalul, their ongoing war and machinations behind the scenes, controlling everything. The First Law Trilogy and Best Served Cold both gave us ample screen time of this rivalry but has since waned in The Heroes and Red Country. But I digress, there is always the next one!

If you’re a fan of George R.R. Martin or Steven Erikson, Game of Thrones and Malazan Book of the Fallen respectively, and you haven’t picked up a Joe Abercrombie book yet, do yourself a favor and go out now. You don’t necessarily need to read his books in the order they were published, the original trilogy notwithstanding, but it does add a certain something with small cameos or shoutouts to previous books.